Timequake by Kurt Vonnegut (1997) For whatever reason, I decided to read (and in some cases, reread) all of Kurt Vonnegut's novels (and maybe a few of the other books) in order—but after reading his first, Player Piano, I decided to read this, his last novel, next, out of curiosity, and in case I didn't get through them all. Written when he was in his seventies, it feels like a last novel, or a kind of summing up. It's in part about a failed novel, which was his original attempt at “Timequake”—about a glitch in the Universe that reverted everyone back ten years, from 2001 to 1991, at which time we all have to relive the previous ten years. I don't know about you, but that kind of jumping around in time makes a lot of sense to me—I guess—in a world, and life, that is often hard to make any sense of. Besides the sci-fi, fantasy, and absurdist elements, this book is also somewhat of a memoir, or could even be looked at as an unconventional autobiography. It's also a final jaunt with his goofy alter-ego, Kilgore Trout. A lot of it is very funny, and a lot of it is very sad. Overall, it kind of made me happy, though—at least in a subdued way. You want to feel like Kurt Vonnegut is your friend, even though sometimes he's a maddening old fart—and he's the first to admit that. But he's also the kind of friend that really helps you (or me, anyway, maybe not you) deal with what we all know life is (well, I speak for myself)—you know: Pain! Fear! Suffering! Wow, that donut's good! Death! Nothingness!
Books I've Finished Reading
The Clue in Blue by Betsy Allen (1948) This is the first book of the Connie Blair Mystery Series—all of the books have a color in the title—the next being The Riddle in Red, and so on. I like that kind of thing. There are 12 books in all, in a ten year run, and the first 11 were written by Betty Cavanna, using Betsy Allen as a pen name, so says Internet. Some or all of the books use Connie's current job as a backdrop for the mystery. In this first book, summer after high school, Connie accompanies her Aunt Bet, a career woman she looks up to, to Philadelphia to work as a model in a department store. We don't get to know that much about Connie's family before she leaves, including her twin sister Kit, and younger brother. She's immediately enveloped in a mystery in this huge, old style department store—where items have taken to disappearing—when she's whacked over the head and knocked unconscious in a kind of weird and shocking situation (stranger still because no one believes her!) Without going into details, she's thrust into issues of women in the workplace, as well as class, and sensitive personal politics—very subtly presented, perhaps, but present. There's also a little romance, and romance for the city experience, seen through the eyes of someone new to it. The mystery part of the story is solid, too, and compelling—I've definitely become a Connie Blair fan and I'm going to look for the next book.
You Were Never Really Here by Jonathan Ames (2013) Awhile back I purchased this short novel on my liquid crystal reading device—I must have just read something about or by Jonathan Ames, and it was likely quite inexpensive. Then I forgot about it until last spring when I saw the movie (by the same name; there is a review of it on this website) adapted from this novel, and I remembered that I had an Ames book waiting for me, looked, and to my delight, it was this one. Normally I'd prefer to read the novel before seeing the movie, but it didn't happen that way this time—and it was impossible to read it without thinking about the choices and changes made in the adaptation. I didn't think too much, though, because I zipped right through this book, like eating a bag of Cheetos after work. I read or heard that Ames said he wanted to write a kind of traditional “page turner”—he certainly did that. The book is concise, well-written, and wastes no words whatsoever—never gets too fancy or cute—and even though he gives you background on this character—a damaged veteran who is highly specialized in recovering children who've been sold into prostitution—it never bogs down in any kind of excessive backstory or development. It's pretty much non-stop action, consistently suspenseful, and extremely violent. I think the matter-of-fact description of how the guy operates keeps if from feeling too disturbing though, and it's fascinating throughout. I'm not a fan of violence—I've had to stop watching several highly thought-of television series' because, yes, I thought they were actually harming me. Also, I'm suspicious of the “page turner” novel—the last time I read one was Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch—and as much as I liked it, I felt I was being manipulated by an excellent craftsperson. But I'll read more by her, who I'm pretty fascinated with, and by Jonathan Ames, who I'm also pretty fascinated with—hey, maybe these two should date.
The Hidden Staircase by Carolyn Keene (1930) This is the second Nancy Drew book, and one supposedly most loved by fans. I've noticed that many series books have a “haunted house” episode early on (if not several) which is often some version of a criminal “haunting” an old house in order to scare people away while they use it as cover for their nefarious activities. Very Scooby-Doo. Naturally, their intentions backfire, as the “ghosts” do nothing but attract youthful investigators. This book has very little plot, actually, and really only one setting: a supposedly haunted house, lived in by two old women—and Nancy goes to stay with them to figure out what's up. She doesn't believe in ghosts. It's more atmosphere than story, but the cool thing about it is imagining the geography/architecture of the place. I did like it, but it's not my favorite Nancy Drew. I read the 1930 version, written by Mildred Wirt Benson, which was supposedly adapted as a 1939 movie; I've never seen it, but would like to. There is a new version of this story in cinema production now (or recently), no doubt based on the 1959 rewrite of this book (or rewrites of the rewrite). I was hoping, without much hope, that they would make either a 1930 period version or a 1950s period version, but based on a production still I saw, it's contemporary. What is the point, really?—except that Nancy Drew is, I guess, a “brand.” In the 1930 version, to protect herself, Nancy takes along a handgun. In this new movie version, I suppose the interesting questions to be answered will be: how many ethnicities and sexual orientations will be covered by her friends; what current music will they listen to; what kind of cars will they drive; what phones will they use; which social media will they be on; and will Nancy use a Taser (like Veronica Mars), pepper spray, or just her wits.
Counter Intelligence by Jonathan Gold (2000) I picked up a copy of this book a few years ago and read a little here and a little there—I'll never read it from cover to cover, but I'll probably read a lot over and over. It's essentially a guide to Los Angeles restaurants, focusing on cuisine diversity, which also, often, means affordable. An 18 year old guide is hopelessly outdated, but Gold's writing is so enjoyable, informed, and intelligent, I read it first of all just to learn about how to write, and second, to learn about varieties of food. It's organized alphabetically and indexed by cuisine's country of origin. I'm sure you know that Jonathan Gold died last month; he was considered by many the best at what he was doing, and he was my favorite writer about food. You can find endless writing by him online, of course. His focus was the greater Los Angeles area, really endless in its immensity. Another reason I have for reading this, and other restaurant guides, is I like to track down listings in older guides to see if the place is still there, or what has replaced it. I document some of this exploration on a sadly neglected blog called Restaurant Time Tunnel; if I get around to reviving it, I'll put a link on the title/news page of this website. If I ever make it out to Los Angeles again, I'll have this book with me, re-read much of it, and hunt down some of the addresses. I suppose for some time, for me as well as his many fans, any trip to LA will be a kind of Jonathan Gold pilgrimage.
Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon (2009) I had read a couple of Thomas Pynchon novels, including Gravity's Rainbow, which was an experience I'll not talk about here. This book is considered Pynchon “lite” by some, I guess, but I think that's a bit snobbish, and also, while more accessible than some of his other books, it's still very dense and fairly impossible to totally get to the bottom of. It's essentially a detective novel set in the 1970s—but it's about much more than the mystery at hand, of course. It's also very funny. It was adapted as a 2014 movie by Paul Thomas Anderson, which follows the book remarkably closely. I read the book, then saw the movie, which I loved, several times, then read the book again. Of course, now the two are forever linked in my mind. I highly recommend either and both to anyone, but as with all movie adaptations of books, you should read the book first. An aside: there is a brief bit in this book, a short conversation, that is almost word for word identical to a bit I wrote in my novel, The Doughnuts (in a part that was taken from a screenplay I wrote a good five years earlier). In the event that anyone ever reads The Doughnuts, they might think I stole it from this novel—but not so! I know that sounds like crazy-person talk, but anyone who knows me knows I'm neither crazy nor a liar. These things happen—but it is very odd.
Air & other Stories by Lauren Leja (2017) This is a fairly short collection of five stories that are all first person, I think, and all taking the form of the autobiographical—though you have to remind yourself that it's fiction, or maybe not—I personally don't think there is a line between fiction and autobiography, but a lot of people aren't comfortable with that idea. These are stories of, I guess it's adolescence—that really uncomfortable and magical time between being a kid and an adult—when you're neither, but actually both. I say short, but there's a lot of weight here, and I'm glad when the pages aren't so many, because lately I've been reading a lot of things twice—like, I need to read things twice, at least things l like—sometimes with a break between readings and sometimes again right away. The stories are from the point of view of a woman looking back, but also from the person in the stories, so there is both an understanding that age brings and the exciting confusion of the time that, for most people, gets eradicated by the understanding, later. Most or all of the stories take place when it's summer, and hot, and the time period and place sounds much like when I was younger, the Seventies, and anywhere pretty much, suburbs, maybe. Even though these experiences are very odd and particular, and very much a young woman's experience, I could relate to a lot of it, as they are those heightened, visceral sensations you get from everything when everything in your world takes on some kind of sexual significance. Maybe it's the time when the sensuous and the sensual are the same thing, before you get older and start putting things it their well-defined, safe categories, which is kind of sad, I guess, but, I guess, necessary.
Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (1952) In some other book I was reading there was a description of Kurt Vonnegut novels on a shelf, those old Dell paperbacks, each with a different color, and that made me want to read these books, which I haven't in many years, or even remember what I read, including this one. But I always got the feeling that Kurt Vonnegut enjoyed writing—as much as I wish to—and whether or not that is true, I admire the feeling that comes through, and his sense of humor, behind which there is some real sadness. This was his first novel, somewhat different in style than he would settle into, but it's pretty amazing for someone's first novel, and also amazing for 1952. It's about a future time, set in Upstate New York, after the third world war, and a society in which miracles of automation have eliminated a large amount of labor, and so there has become an increased and well-defined class division. There are a lot of characters, some parallel stories, and a lot happens. It took me a few chapters to get into it, but once I was, this was one of those reading experiences where picking up the book was the high point of each day. It kept surprising me. The world he describes is at the same time an older, recognizable world, an imagined future that hasn't happened, and also, in many respects, a frighteningly accurate description of now. This made want to read (and re-read) more Kurt Vonnegut, and even though there is so much to read, and so little time, I'm going to.
Never Mind by Edward St Aubyn (1992) I knew nothing about this book except the date (I have to keep reminding myself that the Nineties is not yesterday anymore, but ancient history) and that it's supposedly somewhat autobiographical fiction (which means nothing, ultimately) and it's “book one” of a five part series (known as “The Patrick Melrose Novels”), which is the real appeal to me going in, and I imagine a lot of people; we love when there is the promise of more (and in some cases, more and more and more). Also, I heard they were making a movie or TV series based on the books, starring Benedict Cummerbund. So, if there is a book, and then a movie or TV show made from it, if you think there is any chance you might read the book(s) ever, you should always read the books first—you owe that much to yourself, because a book is an intimate relationship between the author and you (who must do much of the hard work in creating a fictional world), created outside the realm of finance (time being the commodity you and the author share). Movies and TV shows necessarily have huge influences of money, and a collaboration of artists, including composers, visual artists, and actors, among others. Movies are short form, while books are long form (TV lies in between, but is still on the short form side of the spectrum). I know this is all obvious, but in case you forgot. Anyway, I started reading, expecting I might abandon the story pretty quick. While I have an obsession with books about people like myself (privileged white person with a magical childhood), I have an aversion to stories about privileged white people with traumatic childhoods, and I admit to being somewhat of an Anglophobe, as well. Well, as it turns out, something immediately drew me into this sordid, caustic, claustrophobic story about people I didn't relate to, in a setting I didn't recognize. Except that maybe there was a universality to the setting, a compelling depiction of some aspect of the natural world, including weather, that drew me in? Besides that, it could only be something I'd lamely describe as good writing. I'm always on the lookout for that. If I could say what it is that makes writing good, maybe I'd just shut up and do it instead of continuing to lumber along like a maddeningly verbose, obtuse and confusing friend, who we continue to tolerate, even love, because we're, at best, human.
Vacationland by John Hodgman (2017) Because I don't know much about the culture of “comedy,” and I stopped listening to NPR during the Gulf War, and I'm late to podcasts, I had never heard of John Hodgman until three podcasts I have come to listen to had him on practically the same day. I thought he sounded interesting and funny, so I decided to get this book. Some people might put it in the “humor” section—I personally don't think books should be put in “sections”—not even fiction or non-fiction. This book is a good example—I wouldn't call it either, necessarily, and while it's funny, I wouldn't call it humor or comedy, and while it's essentially a memoir, I don't necessarily believe anything he says (and I'm alright with that). For the most part, this is about “John Hodgman”—including friends and family—a person who I feel like I might be more like if I had taken a different path. One of my true beliefs is that success creates its own challenges, and often these are deceptively difficult and even insurmountable. Another of my crazy beliefs is that wealth leads to insanity—no exceptions. Much of this book is about Hodgman making similar observations—and using himself as a guinea pig as he does—and thus, his struggles. To name the book “White People Problems” would have been perceived as sarcastic, though, and “Vacationland” is a good title; it doesn't tell you a lot, and of course doesn't get at the complexity (as doesn't this review) of this well-written, thoughtful, and still very funny book.
Nightmare in Pink by John D. MacDonald (1964) I wanted to check out a few of these Travis McGee mystery novels because they all have a different color in their titles, and apparently I'm the idiot who finds that kind of thing irresistible, as well as series books in general, as well as being the guy Hollywood comes to for advice about writing the next 100 million dollar check. Plus, I found an old paperback copy of this with a totally nutso cover. The beginning is rough (as well as the wrap-up); McGee showing his “sensitive” side, as every woman he comes into contact with wants to sleep with him, and he shows some degree of restraint and a bit of a queasy version of respect. The heart of the story, though, where he gets slipped some nightmarish version of LSD and gets involved with a worse-than-Nazi “research” hospital that lobotomizes, rather than murders, threats to its revenue stream seems plausible enough to create real suspense and a sense of dread. The action and the NYC setting are all crystal clear and pleasurable enough to get through the moist, kind of creepy version of valor the adventure's encased in.
The Secret of Terror Castle by Robert Arthur (1964) This is the first book of the “Alfred Hitchcock and The Three Investigators” series—with a fictional version of Hitchcock “introducing” each adventure as if they are real people—kind of a clever idea. The three Southern California based boy detectives are a little annoying, though their leader, Jupiter Jones, a young version of Sherlock Holmes is kind of irresistible, as is their headquarters, a secret hideout buried (with multiple, imaginative, secret entrances) in the family junkyard where Jupiter lives and works. The earlier books, written by Robert Arthur, are best; later there would be other authors, but I have not read them all, so maybe there are some interesting gems later on. This is one of my favorites, about some eccentrics “haunting” a rustic castle in order to scare away meddlers—pretty much classic Scooby-Doo.
The Vanishing Shadow by Margaret Sutton (1932) This is the first book of the Judy Bolton mystery series in which we get to know Judy and some of her friends and the small town setting. She is inquisitive and smart and somewhat restless. She stumbles upon a mystery involving the building of the local damn—shortcuts taken in its materials and construction that has dire consequences down the road. Judy is also concerned with her brother, Horace, and his paralyzing fear, and she does everything she can to try to change him. She is definitely a person of action, who then is aware of not only the benefits but the consequences of her involvement—so she is often filled with questioning and anxiety—but she pushes onward with great courage. There is also a pretty fascinating and hilarious spelling bee, and it's fun to imagine a time and place where a spelling bee would, for a few days, take hold of a community.
How Literature Save My Life by David Shields (2013) This is a book of connected and unconnected short essays, observations and ideas (sometimes really short) about reading, writing, literature, art, life, and maybe anything. It's by the guy who wrote Reality Hunger (2010), if that rings a bell. I heard him on a podcast, and it was much like reading this. I can't remember a single thing, offhand, from this book, but I did take some notes, somewhere. He's a bit of a nut, and I imagine he rubs some people the wrong way, but he reminds me of that friend who you don't always agree with, but greatly value. I've read this book through twice, and I think I might just start it again, because a lot of it is discussing other literature, which can lead you to some interesting stuff. Besides recommending things, challenging you, sometimes enraging you, it can also inspire you to read, and inspire you to write.
Roadfood (10th Edition) by Jane and Michael Stern (2017) The first edition of Roadfood came out in 1977, and I became aware of it sometime in the early Eighties when it was my bible for interesting, cheap, regional American food. No guide, no matter how long it's been around, can even scratch the surface of cheap and interesting regional American food—one of my major interests—but Jane and Michael Stern have done it as well as anyone, with countless books, NPR spots, and a website (which makes more sense, at this point, than a book). It's a great book to have along if you're traveling, especially by car—but more for the writing than the guide. Obviously it's impossible to keep up with changes, especially where restaurants are concerned, but your phone will do that. What's nice about this book is the inspiration you get from the quality and passion of the writing. I can't underestimate what a huge influence the Sterns have been on me. A side note: I own three previous volumes of Roadfood, and I keep them and use them for an online project and blog called Restaurant Time Tunnel, where I look up places I find in older restaurant guides and report on what's there now—is the place still open, or has it been replaced by who knows what? At this writing, I have long neglected the Time Tunnel, but if and when I get back to it, I'll include a link somewhere on this website. In the meantime, if you're interested, you can probably find it. You can also find this new edition of Roadfood at your local bookstore, who needs your support.
Donna Parker in Hollywood by Marcia Martin (1961) This is the 5th book in the Donna Parker series, a fairly short (7 volumes, I believe) series for young girls—though judging by this one, anyone might be interested. Donna takes a plane from her home in the East to Los Angeles where she's staying with relatives during summer vacation. The adventure begins on the flight—there are mechanical problems—then a layover in Chicago and an adventure with a boy she met on the plane (who would figure into her LA adventures). She then meets another boy in LA, and spends a lot of time comparing the two. She also meets two film-industry kids, girls her age, who are very different. One is a painter and a bit of a misfit. Here is an excerpt: Donna is invited to a luau, and she's freaked out about what to wear, so she asks her new acquaintance—next-door neighbor to her aunt and uncle—the mysterious Jennifer, a young artist, who then tells Donna, “I never go to parties.” Donna questions her and Jennifer says: “It seems so foolish to spend all that valuable time being nice to a lot of people who who probably don't mean a thing to you, when there are so many more interesting things to do, like reading, or listening to music.” To which Donna wonders, Were all artists like that? There is a lot of stuff like that, young person social stuff, and also a couple of legitimate mysteries. Also, a trip up to San Francisco, and a visit to the now gone Pacific Ocean Park. Based on this book, I'm going to read more Donna Parker!
There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé by Morgan Parker (2017) I can't remember who recommended this book, but I was intrigued by the title; I'd never heard of Morgan Parker, but now I notice when her name comes up. She's a young, black poet, with at least one other book published at this time. If I lived in New York, I could probably go see her at a reading, which was something I did occasionally when I lived in New York. I liked this book a lot. As with poetry I like, it's both macro and micro, there's stuff to hold onto, that jumps off the page, and much is mysterious and beyond my understanding, at least at this time, though maybe not when I go back to it. I think that if I read a book of poetry and felt I “got” everything, it would be a disappointment. I usually jump around in books of poetry—with no particular reason, often using multiple bookmarks, and often re-reading some poems. I don't know how the authors feel about that—after all, they probably put them in that order for a reason. This book is probably much more powerful to a reader that has more in common with the author than I do, as an old, white man who is often at sea with popular culture references. But what we have in common is love of words, love of poetry, and a sense of humor. Plus, I do write poetry, and the best way to do it is be inspired by something you read, and this book worked for me in that way. And it made me feel like reading more poetry, and more by Morgan Parker.
Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon (1995) This is the first book I've read by Michael Chabon, and I really liked his writing a lot—it was a pleasure from beginning to end, and kept surprising me, even though I knew much of the story from the movie, Wonder Boys (2000), adapted from the book. I've always had mixed feelings about that movie, yet I'll watch it, or parts of it, whenever it's on TV. It's about writers (my favorite subject), and full of good actors, but what I think always brings me back is the Pittsburgh locations in that time of winter hanging on, freezing rain early spring-time weather. Sometimes I think that all I really want from movies or books is weather. Anyway, it was impossible to read this book without thinking about the actors' creations of these characters—kind of too bad—but that's the danger of seeing the movie before reading the book. In this case it was worthwhile, because the book went so much deeper (which a book can do) and further into the characters' lives (including some great characters that are omitted from the movie). There is probably no subject I like more than a struggling novelist, and this is that story and then some. I also liked how the novel ended, much more than the movie (which always kind of bugged me), so all in all I'm feeling pretty good about the Wonder Boys universe—and its intersection to mine.
Triple Trouble for Rupert by Ethelyn M. Parkinson (1960) A follow-up to Double Trouble for Rupert, and more of the same—short stories, some originally published in magazines—focusing on Rupert Piper and his small circle of friends, their teachers, parents, and some small town characters. I believe that Wisconsin author Ethelyn M. Parkinson was never married and had no children, so it's interesting that she chose to focus on boys in her books—I mean rather than girls. She has a fascinating take on family dynamics, though, with a very warm and wise portrait of Rupert's mom, which reminds me somewhat of my own mom, which is maybe why these books appealed to me so much. Plus, Rupert is an instigator, which I was as a kid. In most of these stories the boys learn a little bit about maturity, in tackling some problem, anxiety, or misconception. The oddest story is the last one, where the boys make a fake “Univac” computer out of an old piano box, with blinking lights and a kid hidden inside with a typewriter. They feature it at a charity event and charge five cents to answer questions. I didn't realize that computers were so much in the popular conversation this early; people really had to wait for a long time before they were able to have all the fun we have these days!
The Ghost of Dibble Hollow by May Nickerson Wallace (1965) This a Scholastic Book Service paperback, though not one I read when young. I often buy these SBS books when I see them because they have a great look to them, and are often worth reading. This one was surprising as it's a pretty mature story, and also about an actual ghost, but not a scary one, and while it is a mystery, it's more about social issues. A family moves to a summer home and the young boy, Pug, learns about a long-time, ongoing feud, and with the help of the ghost of a boy (a relative) who died tragically young, he sets out to try to make things right. There is a point, a little past halfway, when things start heating up, when Pug goes to town and confronts one of the old-timers (a respected rich guy) on his greed and insensitive policy (too complicated to really go into it here). It's a great scene and actually gave me chills. The rest of the book is then very satisfying—and even though it wraps things up a little too neatly to really feel like reality—I had to remember that it's still a kids' book, not a 1970s movie—and I bet this was a favorite of some people when growing up.